I know that many in Canada are looking at Toronto and just sighing in exasperation. Oh, NOW they have a championship basketball team to act smug about as well. I understand why the national hatred of Toronto exists.
If you don’t live here, you probably think that everyone in the city thinks it’s the center of the world. You probably think that Torontonians consider anyone living outside of a 100 km radius centered by the city an uncultured, straw-chewing hick. That we only care about money, work, status, money, stress and espresso drinks. There IS that element. But let me tell you that most of us in Toronto sneer at that stereotype as well. Sure, Torontonians talk and think about work and money, but this city is EXPENSIVE to live in and it keeps getting more expensive. We need to hustle to make ends meet.

But, to dispel this myth, Torontonians are generally down to earth, friendly people. We may dodge slow-moving tourists with an air of exasperation, but in fact, when we see a horde of tourists, it makes us feel good that people WANT to come to visit where we live. It’s validating. Because, really, we’re insecure. We’re not as cool as Montreal. We’re not as pretty as Vancouver. We don’t have vulture-sized mosquitoes like Winnipeg. Sorry, my ‘Toronto’ overpowered me.
For the last year or two, we’ve experienced a malaise unlike ever before. We watched helplessly and suffered through two horrific events in the Van Attack that targeted women and killed 10 and injured 16 people, introducing the word incel to the world. And last summer, we had the Danforth Ave. shooting that made us feel vulnerable like never before. We’ve had political unrest based in the vengeful cuts by the Conservative provincial government. Cuts that were clearly made by the Dishonourable Premier of Ontario to punish a city that didn’t like him or vote for him as mayor.
Anyone who has lived here since before the 2000s can feel the strain as more and more people move here. Traffic and public transit is an increasing nightmare. Skyrocketing rent and real estate has created a larger divide between those with and those without. Our homeless and addict populations have increased while social services have been slashed. Toronto has been desperate for more wins because it feels they’re becoming fewer and fewer.

An NBA Team For Toronto

Toronto is identified as a hockey town. There’s no dispute. And hockey reflects the plain frozen yogurt side of Toronto; white, middle-class and cold. I know there are many young people who dreamt of playing when they were young but their families couldn’t afford the equipment and league fees. I begrudgingly played only because my brother was/is a great hockey player whose outgrown gear was handed down to me. As well, my mom felt I needed a reason to get out of the house on a Saturday morning. Baseball was what I liked playing. As a terrible runner, soccer wasn’t much fun. And while I could join in as an average player in a pickup game of those sports, basketball was the one that made me look like I had two left feet and two left arms. I couldn’t dribble or shoot. I lacked speed and height. Every gym class that featured the sport was a lesson in humility. Basketball frustrated me.
So when Toronto got an NBA team, I wasn’t an instant fan. Unlike now, I was a hockey fan. I was bothered that the team’s name was based on a blockbuster movie. I wanted the team to be named the Toronto Towers. THAT made more sense to me. But I did keep a bit of an eye on basketball just because we had a team. When the team lifted itself up out of the basement, I looked a bit more. I remember watching transfixed as the Raptors beat the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls during their 1995-96 72-10 season. I remember watching Damon Stoudamire sink three-pointer after three-pointer thinking “Holy shit, the Raptors are beating Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen”. Decades later, when Masai Ujiri was hired as team president and the Raptor postseason became more consistent, I became interested, like any classic bandwagon fan. I admit to only glances at regular season games. And slightly longer ones during the playoffs – usually in the 4th quarter.

This year, I didn’t pay much attention to the first round of the Raptors postseason. My father was in the hospital at that time and sadly died after game one of the first round versus the Orlando Magic. I certainly wasn’t paying attention to the NBA Finals. However, later in that series, the games MATTERED to me. They were a distraction from my sadness. The team’s wins were making me happy and pulling me out of my gloom. When they made it to the second round, I was fully engrossed. And I discovered I wasn’t alone. The vast majority of the people I knew were now following the team and the playoffs. My mother in law and my mother (though she couldn’t stay up late for the final round), my kids, everyone who I didn’t know as a fan joined the bandwagon.
And everyone was welcome. Every day at work following a game included a rap-up of the most exciting moments of the previous night. We’d all roll in tired from saying up to watch the finals. And it wasn’t just friends. I met a number of people for the first time over Raptor discussions. Everyone became a supporter and a pundit and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

A City Together

The most amazing, most positive occurrence was how an entire city and country came together for their team. Toronto buzzed with excitement for these games and this team. We soaked in the stories of the players, from Kyle Lowry, our stalwart, often-criticized point guard who lost his best friend to bring in the best two-way forward in the game, Kawhi Leonard. Would only a championship keep him here? The answer still remains to be heard. Point guard, Fred Vanvleet, whose play was energized by the birth of his son during the penultimate series losing a tooth and winning some stitches from an errant elbow. We got to witness the coalescence of a team of players into a strike force of unstoppable power. Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Serge Ibaka, Norm Powell and Pascal Siakam, they all came together to play at their very highest levels and overcome challenges such as the teamwide loss of successful shooting for the last two games against the Golden State Warriors. They found ways to win, they didn’t let positive results fill their heads. After beating the defending back-to-back champs in game four, just a single win away from winning the championship, the team walked back to their dressing room without the hint of a grin on their faces. It was chilling to see, this team that knew that the work was far from done; that to bring hardware home required not a single minute of focus lost.

Lessons To Learn

Yes, this is a game played by millionaires on a team owned by billionaires. But there’s still so much for regular schmos like me to take away and add to their real lives.
Lessons about perseverance, relentless concentration, stress management, facing adversity and not letting your detractors affect your results. I hope all the children who hung on to every play and stayed up WAY past their bedtimes take some of these lessons with them. We watched this team not diminish at all. They looked like they could’ve played another round and IMPROVED. The team also showed us demonstrable perfection. Game three versus the reigning champions and game six against Milwaukee, everything this team did lead to success – shooting, defending, passing, movement, position and decision-making. I’ve never witnessed anything like this, not just in sport.
This team held the dreams of millions of people, Torontonians and Canadians alike. Their underdog story charmed basketball fans all over the world. Each moment they won, Toronto the Sad, cheered up more and more. All the weight of distress, concern and uncertainty, the fear and gloom, was overpowered. The city could walk its streets and look into all eyes to see smiles. The city created its our own stories and characters as we joined one another and this team to push through to victory. The fans gave what they could, namely, their voices and their presence. Even at games in Oakland, Toronto represented in the thousands. The culmination of 24 years of fandom was evidently worth more than a sickeningly high credit card bill.

I came out the other side of all this as a true fan. I have a lot to learn about the sport, about the other teams in the league, but my craving for the next season to start, to see that championship banner hoisted to the rafters has shed me of my bandwagon skin.
I’m in.
I’m ready for more.
Just don’t make me try to throw any three-pointers.

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